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LOST WEEKEND PUZZLES NIAGARA

The Niagara men's hockey program has reached a crisis stage.

Bemidji State, a team Niagara used to own at home, came into Dwyer Arena and swept both games of their weekend series with a 2-1 overtime victory Saturday afternoon before 786 fans.

The loss itself wasn't disconcerting because the Purple Eagles played well for most of the game. What has coach Dave Burkholder miffed are issues that appear to be dogging his team from within.

"It's not a very tight locker room, for sure," Burkholder said.

Top goalie Jeff Van Nynatten played for the first time since Oct. 30 after Burkholder suspended him for behavioral reasons. Van Nynatten made 39 saves, including several beauties, but the winning goal came just 11 seconds into sudden death.

The forwards don't seem to playing with much confidence. They had several glorious opportunities to win the game in regulation but failed to score. The power play converted only one of 22 chances this weekend.

The Purple Eagles are at the bottom of College Hockey America at 0-2-0. They are 5-8 overall.

Now they must leave the nest for six weeks. Niagara will take a week off for Thanksgiving and then visit CHA-leading Alabama-Huntsville for two games Dec. 3-4, Bemidji State for two more Dec. 10-11 and non-conference rival UMass-Lowell on Dec. 30.

"We have a week to sort out that locker room because we're not a very good team right now," Burkholder said. "We're not playing for each other.

"They probably need time away from the coaching staff and time away from each other, concentrate on school and get some much-needed rest. It's been a tough grind. We're just frustrated and beat up."

The fourth-year coach is mystified that his team isn't playing nearly as well as he knows it can.

Early in the season Niagara was competitive in losses to powerhouse Maine, then beat nationally ranked Vermont twice and Clarkson once -- all on the road.

But somewhere along the line the Purple Eagles lost their edge.

"Our guys are squeezing it, and that's a problem," Burkholder said."

Niagara grabbed a 1-0 lead just 4:13 into the game on Ryan Gale's team-high ninth goal off a wonderful cross-ice feed from Jason Williamson. Bemidji State tied the game with 5:42 left in the second period, when captain Andrew Murray rifled an untouchable shot from the left circle.

Van Nynatten was effective in his return. But the winning goal left Burkholder far from amused.

Brendon Cook shot the puck from outside the right faceoff dot, and it squirted between Van Nynatten's legs.

"That was not a goal we can have at the Division I level," Burkholder said, "especially in overtime."

Burkholder wouldn't elaborate on the reasons for Van Nynatten's suspension, but the junior netminder reportedly threw a tantrum a road trip.

In the five games leading up to Saturday, sophomore Allen Barton and freshman Scott Mollison handled the goaltending.

"He's our No. 1 goalie, but he's had some issues that warranted . . . he did not deserve to play," Burkholder said. "He did not deserve to wear the uniform. Hopefully we can put that behind us, but we'll go game to game.

"He had some violations of team rules. When you clump them together we were pointed into a corner. We had to give him some time off."

Van Nynatten couldn't be reached to comment.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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